Tonight on Sky you can catch the first of a two-part series that sees cricketing legend Freddie Flintoff and cycling writer Robert Penn tackle a 1,200km ride along one of the word’s most controversial roads in Flintoff’s Road to Nowhere.
Robert Penn is probably best known in cycling for his book and TV series It’s All About the Bike. “The Amazon was never on my bucket list of places to go for a bike ride,” he wrote in a recent column in The Independent. He didn’t fancy the poor roads, heat, humidity, unchanging scenery and the chance of encountering any of 196 species of snake. And who can blame him?
But Penn was persuaded to head to South America by the chance to make a documentary with cricketing legend Freddie Flintoff about the environmental impact of the Trans-Amazonian Highway.
Penn wrote: “The plan was to cycle 1,200km, to the end of the road. Along the way, we’d meet gold-miners, cattle ranchers, legal and illegal loggers, sawmill owners, rodeo-bull riders, shopkeepers and schoolkids.”
On the way, Flintoff turns from an avowed environmental sceptic, asking Penn at one point “What would you rather have, beef or trees?”, to wanting to see the rainforest conserved.
Flintoff and Penn were riding Genesis 29er mountain bikes for the journey that ended where the road does, in the middle of the jungle, at a small town called Labrea beside the Purus River. It was originally supposed to stretch 4,000km, but was never finished; in fact it was never even paved.
That meant Penn and Flintoff had to content with distinctly ropey surfaces - at best graded dirt, but at worst a cratered cart track. Passing trucks kicked up clouds of dust, but this was damped down at one point in the journey by a thunderstorm. Not to worry though, that didn’t make the going any easier, it just replaced dust with sticky mud.
It all sounds far more fun to watch than to do, but there’s a serious point. Flintoff and Penn were travelling under the auspices of the Sky Rainforest Rescue project, run by WWF in the western state of Acre to promote agricultural initiatives that leave the trees standing.
They did find farmers who have begun to recognise the importance of the rainforest, and try and find ways of using it sustainably rather than clear-felling and sowing grass for cattle.
And while it doesn't sound like snakes were a problem after all, they did encounter a particularly large spider, lurking in the top of a bag that had been left open overnight. "After that, we zipped all our bags at night," said Penn.
Flintoff's Road to Nowhere will be shown on Sky 1 HD on April 4 and 11 at 9pm.
Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.
Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.
Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.
The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.